How Theater Saved The World From My Self-Deluded Arrogance (And A Brief Review Of Beau Jest) – Act I

My sister was always better at sports than I was, starting at goalie on our high school varsity soccer team and playing baseball with the boys until she made the transition to softball her freshman year. I remember spending hours on the road going to and from her tournaments, crammed in the back of my mom’s Ford Ranger, passing the time on the little fold-down “seat” that faced sideways behind the front seats by reading or playing games. I stayed in that backseat for much of my childhood until I found my own niche in high school, one I stumbled upon by accident but dove headfirst into after I got my first taste: theater. A friend of mine asked me one day if I would go with him to audition for a play after school in the theater. I didn’t know there were auditions going on, that a play was coming up, or that there was a theater on our campus, but I agreed, got a part, and invested my free time in plays for the next two years.

I always doubted myself playing sports, beating myself up for making a mistake on the field and expecting to be as great as my sister. But onstage I didn’t make mistakes, I made choices. Some choices weren’t very good ones, but I found that I made many more good choices than bad, so that when I had to correct something it wasn’t such a big blow to my ego, and I could learn to role with the punches and adapt in order to make something beautiful. And that was what each show was an opportunity to do: make something beautiful. It was different every time, and in learning different characters and becoming them onstage with all of their quirks and personalities and back-stories, I went through the process of learning who I was and became myself offstage.

There was always poignant beauty for me to find in plays, discovering life’s great truths in a series of bite sized acts, partitioned by an intermission and ending at a predictable time. And while life itself is much more complex than what we see onstage, so is the play, and it is a truly great play that can communicate the complexity of life on a single stage in two hours. Beau Jest did just that.

Beau Jest is a comedy that revolves around a woman, Sarah, who is in a long-term relationship with a man that her family does not approve of because he is not Jewish, which their entire family system is. She hires a man to pose as her boyfriend, an actor pretending to be a Jewish doctor, and has him stand in at their family celebrations. The resulting dinners are laugh out loud funny, with the stand-in-boyfriend bluffing his way through the Seder and other Jewish customs, and impressing the family and gaining their approval along the way. As you can imagine, however, this lie begins to grow bigger and more complicated (read hilarious) as the play continues, and when the truth is inevitably revealed her parents are not thrilled, to say the least. The mood swiftly shifts from light and comedic to tense and agitated, and when the ensuing argument reaches it’s climax, Sarah’s father, Abe, shouts:

“You don’t lie to your parents!… I’ll tell you when you lie. You lie to the man who tells you you can’t come into his country because you don’t have a sponsor. You lie to the man who says you can’t go to his school because you have a name that sounds funny. You lie to the kid who comes into your store and holds a gun to your head and wants to take your life from you.”

The air was immediately sucked out of the room as everyone collectively held their breath and the scene came to a rapid halt. As the dust began to settle and the play moved along, I could tell that most of the people in the audience were just as shell-shocked as me, unpacking and processing every layer that was hidden in Abe’s outburst. As I peeled back these layers, I found the complicated and often painful realities of lying, the messiness of every family dynamic, and the spot-on political truth that was so raw and difficult many years ago and means so much now. What I found most powerful, however, was that, in just five lines, Abe revealed the power of a story and put my heart in the spotlight.

In the midst of the ongoing chaos onstage, the audience is swept up in Sarah’s point of view, and affirms her claims about how her parents expectations are ruining her life. We become so immersed in one side of the story that we forget there are other actors and, if those people have done their homework, stories onstage. But when a nerve is touched in Abe, one that runs deep into his past, he flings open the wound that has caused him to control parts of Sarah’s life. We see that his wounds have driven him to try and insure that his daughter is not wounded as well, that she is not rejected like he was, that she is embraced like he wanted to be. 

Far too often it takes moments like this for us to see that real, raw, flesh and blood humanity exists around us, moments where someone’s deepest wounds are poked and prodded until they react to the pain we inflict with anger or sorrow or hatred. We are so caught up in our own narrative that we completely forget that there are other people in this world and stories attached to them. We are deluded, assuming that all the other actors exist one-dimensionally on our stage solely to serve our storyline. But if that were true, then we too are simply one-dimensional characters on their stage serving their storyline. If, however, everyone around us has a stage and a story too, then nobody’s story can be one-sided and must be integrally connected. I think we are stories overlapping and interweaving, sharing a common stage and following individual narratives that must interact dynamically with one another.

But a high school me didn’t understand that, because I was finally good at something and enjoyed every minute of my turn in the spotlight. It took a moment extreme pride and deep, self-inflicted humiliation for me to understand how arrogant I had become and how desperately I needed others to live a full story.

More on that in Act II.

The Church Will Never Be Perfect, But It Was Meant To Try

I didn’t grow up in church, and didn’t spend any significant amount of time with Christians until I was in high school. Before that, I didn’t have any frame of reference for how church worked or what Christians were like, so when I first began attending a church and exploring the idea of God, I had to figure everything out, like when to stand and when to sit, when to sing and when to bow my head in silence, and which cute girls were single (It’s true, I was in high school). I also didn’t really have any expectations of the people I encountered there, but when I first read the description of the church in Acts 2 I recognized that something was off, and I realized when I read it again recently that I still felt that way.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” ‭‭- Acts‬ ‭2:42-47‬ ‭NIV‬‬

That’s really sweet and all, but the church was in it’s honeymoon phase. I bet that sort of passion and generosity and joy died pretty quickly. That was my first thought when I read this passage recently. The church described in Acts was brand new, witnessing incredible miracles and ministry, and everyone was just getting to know each other. It’s no surprise that they got along so well and acted so virtuously, but did that really continue after this season of the church? Looking at today’s churches, much of our society might say no, including people who attend those churches. Our expectations of the church are lower than this description in Acts, including my own. Why?

Most of the world expects something from Christians, and usually it’s the expectation to see a life that represents a man named Jesus who loved and healed and empowered people, and claimed to give his life to save the world. But nearly all of us have had encounters with church people or have seen self-professed “Christians” on our TV screens who are woefully missing the mark, and that sets our expectations for future encounters with someone who claims to be a Christian. After these encounters our expectations are nearly always lowered.

If we get enough courage and dare to set foot in a church, it doesn’t take very long to confirm these expectations either, because the reality is, churches are filled with broken people. There are liars and cheats and thieves and adulterers and the greedy and lazy and judgmental and self-righteous within the walls of the church. And when you put that many messed up people in one room together, conflict is bound to happen. And it eventually did for the new church in Acts:

“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” – ‭‭Acts‬ ‭6:1‬ ‭NIV‬‬

As people began congregating as the church in Acts, there were some who were of the nationality of God’s people (the Hebraic Jews) and those who were not born into but had adopted the faith (Hellenistic Jews). Those who were not born into the nation that traditionally had been God’s people were being mistreated, their widows overlooked when food was distributed in the church. The church experienced discrimination from within based on nationality at the very start of it’s existence.

Ha! I was right! This is where the honeymoon phase wears off and the church began descending into the reality we see in the church today, where people fight and gossip and vie for power and nitpick about how things ought to be done and forget about the world outside the church walls! Well, not really. When faced with the inevitable disagreement and tension in the church, what did the leaders of the church do? They addressed the issue, corrected the problem, and moved on to continue the work of loving people and telling them about Jesus (6:2-7). It even says that because of how they handled the situation “the word of God spread” and “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly” (6:7).

So the honeymoon phase continued? When did it really end? And this is where I think the greatest expectation of the church is revealed. Whether on the outside looking in or judging from inside the church walls, nearly everyone shares the same expectation of the church:

Perfection.

If you’re going to be a Christian then you better represent Jesus perfectly, avoiding the stereotypes about Christians that exist in the society around you, and simultaneously fulfilling the expectations of the family of God, perpetuating this perception of the Acts honeymoon phase of church. But the tricky thing about a human standard of perfection is that it is subjective. Everyone has different standards to be met and hoops to be jumped through in order to declare that Christians are “doing it right.” But what the new church in Acts and a freshman-in-high-school me had in common was that we had no expectations, because we had never seen church before. So all of our hopes for the church were being fulfilled because it’s people did one thing really well: They tried.

Now don’t get me wrong, Jesus definitely has expectations of his people that they would try and grow more like him. But in their trying the church in Acts was growing. Through their failures they were becoming increasingly generous and committed to loving each other, while also stoking a collective passion for people to know the God they knew, one who loved all people and desired for them to know a new and whole life in Jesus. It didn’t ultimately matter that conflicts arose and feelings were hurt, they entered into those places of pain, sought reconciliation and healing, and continued to try their best to love the world and glorify God. 

And that’s exactly what I saw when I first went to church: a bunch of imperfect people loving God and each other, welcoming anyone who walked through their doors, and working towards healthy relationships and the good of others. And at times they failed. And I failed. We all failed and continue to do so! But I think that’s an appropriate expectation of the church: to be trying. Because while Jesus was perfect in our place, he also gave us his Holy Spirit to empower our trying, and if we are legitimately trying to live lives worthy of the legacy of Jesus, then we should and will be growing daily in radical compassion, beautiful humility, passionate sacrifice, and joyful unity in the name and power of Jesus.

The church will never be perfect, but it was meant to try.


Photo by Megan Burgess

We All Have Gold On Our Hands

When my sister and I were young our mom ran a daycare out of our home, which was great for my sister and I because we had instant friends! They even got dropped off on our doorstep in the morning and were picked up in the evening when we had had enough of them! There are more stories from that daycare than I have space for here, but I’ll share one for now.

Every day after spending time doing activities inside the house, my mom would let us loose into our backyard. It wasn’t a big space, but had plenty of room for ten kids to run around and have a good time with the big wheels, doll houses, and various sporting equipment that lived out there. One of the options we had to play with was our planter box, and since my mom knew nothing would grow in the hostile environment of a child’s exploring years, she put shovels and pails in there and let us dig. One day, when I was about 2 years old, I was digging in this planter box alongside one of the other kids in the daycare, and as I lifted a big pile of dirt onto my shovel, I had a thought. I looked at the dirt, then at the kid next to me, then at my mom who was dealing with a feud over a Barbie, and proceeded to fling the pile of dirt over my shoulder into the neighboring kid’s face. He wailed through the dirt on his face, and I had dirt on my hands.

As my mom took me inside for my dad to punish me (he happened to be home that day) I kept asking, “What? What did I do wrong?” This only proceeded to antagonize my mom and led to a more severe punishment from my dad, but the question I asked was pure; I did not understand what I had done wrong. When I looked at the dirt and then at the kid, I was truly curious as to what the outcome would be if I flung dirt in his face, and quickly found out he would cry and I would get in trouble. It is one of the only times in my life that I can remember truly not comprehending the result of my actions (though I learned them quickly and never did that again). And I can’t help but think of this story when I read about Aaron’s ordeal with the golden calf in Exodus 32.

At this point in their story, the Israelites are still wandering in the desert after their miraculous escape from Egypt, and their fearless leader, Moses, is currently on top of a mountain having a conversation with God. This is actually the conversation that results in the Ten Commandments, but we will come back to those. For now, leave Moses on the mountain and direct your focus to the Israelites, who are complaining at Aaron (Moses’ brother and primary communicator):

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”” – Exodus‬ ‭32:1‬

Aaron knows that God has commanded them to follow Him only, but finds himself surrounded by an angry crowd and a bit outside of his wheelhouse. After all, Moses is the one who speaks with God and makes big decisions, while Aaron is merely the public speaker, parroting everything Moses tells him to say. Who knows what this crowd will do if he doesn’t give them what they want, but he has never been forced to make a decision like this! So Aaron concedes and commands them to give him their gold jewelry:

“Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”” – ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭32:2-4‬

The people are appeased and take the opportunity to sacrifice to the calf and revel in their triumph at a festival they throw the next day. But their victory is short lived, because while they were busy replacing the God who had led them out of Egypt, Moses was being told by that God about their rebellion and then sent down the mountain to call them on the carpet. And Moses knows exactly who to go to in order to get answers:

“He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”” – ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭32:21-24‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Aaron comes clean, only blaming the Israelites for a moment as he calls them evil, and appears to own what he has done. But if you’ll notice, there is a key difference between his story to Moses and the account of what actually happened from earlier in the chapter. Aaron claims to have collected their jewelry and placed it all in the fire, when all of a sudden out pops this shaped and formed calf made from the gold. Yet in the original account in verse four it says that “He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.” What a weak attempt at avoiding guilt! Aaron clearly formed the idol that the Israelites abandoned God for, but later claims he did not, and suggests that the fire took the gold, formed a calf, and spit it back out!

If I’m honest with myself, I think I knew that throwing dirt in the kid’s face would be an unpleasant experience for him, though I did not know exactly what would happen. And I think if we were regularly honest with ourselves, we’d know that many of the decisions we make in life are not leading us closer to God, but further away. I can’t wake up early to read the Bible, I need more sleep. I could do it now, but I’ll wait to forgive my aunt once she’s come to me and apologized. I’ll pray for that person later, I’ll even add it to my TO DO list. These missed opportunities and little decisions we make take us further and further from relationship with our God, until one day we find ourselves face to face with an idol. A golden calf, or a job, or a relationship, or an addiction, or our children, or approval, or validation, or anything else we place before God. Our idols. And when we see them for what they are, we start explaining it away like Aaron, stammering like Moses because we know, deep down, that we held the tools that shaped these idols in our lives.

Idols happen. Regularly and repeatedly. They creep into our lives in conscious or subconscious ways, vying for our time and affection until we have none left for God. And because he formed us and knows us better than we know ourselves, God dealt with idols first in those Ten Commandments he was giving Moses on the mountain:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.”” – ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭20:2-3‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Our God knows our hearts, that we were made to love and give our lives to Someone greater than ourselves, yet knows that we are constantly giving them away to many somethings that aren’t worth our affection and devotion. So he tells us to keep him first, but only after he reminds us of who he is and how incredibly and unendingly devoted he is to us, the one who brought us out of all of our Egypts and enslavements. It’s as if he is saying:

I made you, and I know you. In deeper ways than you will ever know yourself. And I know that, like Aaron, you’d like to believe that you never had a tool in your hand, never fashioned an idol for yourself as your eyes drifted from me. But I see you and your idols, and I am committed to you. I always have been. So come back. I delight in you and desire to be your delight in those places in your heart that you try to stuff idols. They’ll never fill those voids, but I promise I will. Now let’s get you washed up. You have gold on your hands.


Photo by Megan Burgess

When God Lovingly Draws Us Into A Dark Night Of The Soul

‭‭I often imagine the seasons of life as hills and valleys, ups and downs, highs and lows, ascents into light and growth, descents into darkness and trial. And when thinking of the seasons of decline, with the exceptions of those that we seem to be drop-kicked into, I tend to think of myself on the edge of a cliff with two options ahead of me: I can either work on finding the staircase into the valley, or ignore the chasm until I am inevitably pushed over the edge. Either way, the valley is coming.

The descent seems to be the worst part for most of us because we are headed in a downward direction of suffering, despair, persecution, depression, or any host of other negative experiences in life. And since we know (or hope) these times to be valleys, there promises to be an upward incline on the other side of this season. But the valley floor is covered in shadow and we don’t know how far we must descend until we have truly reached our lowest low, and not knowing that becomes more tortuous than what sent us over the edge in the first place.

In his novel, Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter describes a character named Shane who is about to pitch a movie script and looking for a big break. Shane has had an extended season of downward spiraling, from losing jobs to a recent divorce, but believes this script could be the rope he’s been looking for to kickstart the climb out of his valley. When asked if he truly believes his script will be picked up, he responds:

‘Yes. I do,’ Shane says, and he does. It’s the key sub-tenet of Shane’s movie-inspired ACT-as-if faith in himself: his generation’s profound belief in secular episodic providence, the idea – honed by decades of entertainment – that after thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out.

This theory of secular episodic providence could not be more true of myself and my generation. We have been conditioned to believe that life will be filled with miscommunications and misunderstandings that will rattle around and cause damage in comedic fashion between friends or co-workers, and a witty or sarcastic monologue is all it will take to force the guilty party to realize the error of their ways and provide the injured party with vindication. It’s why we are so obsessed with the mic drop, and while this trend shows us an incredibly unhealthy form of one-sided attack-mode communication, it also reveals a basic misunderstanding about the struggles we face: We believe we have the ability end our crises in a neat and tidy fashion in the amount of time we deem appropriate. We believe that, through our own efforts, we get to say when our seasons of darkness are over, or how long the valley floors will be, or when it is time for us to head back uphill again. But the reality is we don’t.

However, while we cannot command our seasons of struggle to end, we can make choices that will honor God and help us navigate our way down and through them. 

Choice Number One: We choose to abandon our attempts to call the shots and end our valley seasons.

Proverbs Three encourages us to “not be wise in [our] own eyes,” which is exactly what we do when we try to figure out when the darkness will end and the light will return. I do not encourage abandoning the learning process or giving up the pursuit of understanding the circumstances that got us into the pit in the first place, but we can’t cling to the hope that once we figure out what the problem is, the darkness will subside and we will find ourselves on a plateau once again. We are not promised that.

Choice Number Two: We choose to remember and believe that God is with us in the midst of our valleys. 

Richard Foster mused on seasons of difficulty and sorrow in his work Celebration of Discipline, and used St. John of the Cross’ phrase: “the dark night of the soul.” But Foster did not imagine that some people might avoid the dark night of the soul, nor did he believe that God abandoned his people to encounter it alone. He states:

When God lovingly draws [you] into a dark night of the soul… recognize the dark for what it is. Be grateful that God is lovingly drawing you away from every distraction so that you can see Him. Rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.

Foster sees that God, in his commitment to work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28), lovingly brings us to the dark night, walks with us to the edge of the cliff, and invites us to go through it with him rather than in our own strength. By highlighting the care with which God takes us through the valley, Foster also unveils for us the third choice we can make in our seasons of darkness.

Choice Number Three: We choose to believe that the Lord’s delight in us remains and trust in him above ourselves.

Proverbs Three contains one of the most frequently used passages among Christian circles, and it isn’t without reason we hear these words so frequently.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 

in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight… 

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, 

because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” – Proverbs 3:5-6, 11-12

Our God is concerned with our process, the process by which we look more and more like his Son. And as we continually learn to think and behave and love and give like Jesus did, we must unlearn our selfishness, pride, envy, and hate, and that unlearning usually happens in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death. It is in those places that we are most vulnerable and exposed, attentive to the voice of God because every other sense has been suffocated in the deep darkness of our suffering. In those places, God helps us unlearn the destructive habits and character flaws that keep us distanced from and hostile to him and the people around us, and teaches us those things that make unity with God and healthy inter-dependence upon each other possible. We must learn to trust our God and, “rather than chafing and fighting, become still and wait.”

Unfortunately I cannot tell you how long to wait, though it will probably be longer thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes. I once waited through depression for two years, and I too fought my way towards the bottom, only to get so exhausted that I couldn’t help but give up and trust in God, because I had nothing else to hold on to. Once I did, he began to clear the fog and tend to my wounds, and once he helped me up we walked together the rest of the way down, across the valley floor, and up the other side. God is working for your good; I encourage you to let him.